A key Senate chairman yesterday signaled that she has doubts about Bush administration plans for a new government-wide pay system that would require more rigorous job performance ratings of employees.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked whether the administration considered using pilot projects, which can be authorized by the Office of Personnel Management, as a way to work toward its goal of replacing the decades-old General Schedule pay system with a performance-based approach.

In her view, Collins said, the administration "would have done well to focus on what was working well" in current pilot projects and alternative pay methods "before proceeding to transform" the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

Dan G. Blair, OPM's deputy director, said OPM had "limited authority" to set up pilot projects because the experiments are limited to 5,000 people per project. The first phases of the Defense and Homeland Security systems will probably cover more than 5,000 employees each and, when complete, will apply new workplace rules to more than 850,000 federal workers.

Under the proposed government-wide pay system, Blair said, the administration would ensure "that safety measures are in place" to provide for fair treatment of federal employees. OPM would certify that agencies were ready to jettison the GS system and convert to performance-based pay, he said.

Collins's remarks came at a hearing chaired by Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who heads the Senate's federal workforce subcommittee. Voinovich held the hearing to learn how alternative personnel systems in the government have been developed and called on the Commerce Department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to discuss their experiences.

Collins, Voinovich and the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii), appeared concerned that the Bush administration is trying to move too quickly on a bill that would overhaul federal pay practices. The House federal workforce subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for next week on the administration's proposal.

The administration is pushing the legislation, although the pay system rollouts are off to a slow start at Defense and Homeland Security.

Defense has not issued a final regulation required before it can begin linking pay to performance. The start of the new workplace rules at Homeland Security has been delayed because of a lawsuit filed by the National Treasury Employees Union and other labor groups.

Some of the changes planned by the departments have been tested in pilot projects over the past two decades, officials have said.

At yesterday's hearing, David M. Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office, testified that performance-based and market-based compensation "cannot be simply overlaid" on existing management systems because most agencies are operating with systems that "are not very good."

Collins echoed Walker's warning and said that leaving the General Schedule and converting to new pay systems would require "a lot of training" and support from supervisors committed to success. She noted that many employees are worried that their managers would be too busy to properly administer performance-based pay.

Blair said that OPM has heard complaints that "my manager is a bonehead" and will establish goals for agencies to help them develop robust performance management approaches.

After hearing sometimes-contradictory testimony from agencies and union leaders on performance pay, and an acknowledgment from an FDIC official that employees there have given the idea mixed reviews, Voinovich pronounced himself "perplexed."

He suggested that it might be more useful to look at an agency-by-agency solution rather than impose a one-size-fits-all framework for performance pay if Congress decides to permit other agencies to follow the path of Defense and Homeland Security.

Akaka said he was concerned about imposing performance pay across government "all at one time" and suggested that it would be better to wait and see how the changes at Defense and Homeland Security work out and then correct any mistakes.

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